Lent Madness: Vote for Ephraim!

Icon of Ephraim of Syria

I’ve written before about St. Ephraim of Edessa, called the Harp of the Holy Spirit. He was a fourth century deacon, theologian, homilist, and most famously, hymn writer — over 400 of his hymns still exist today. Many of his hymns and sermons were composed to defend the orthodox faith of Nicaea against competing heresies. I recommend a book of his hymns in English translation by Kathleen McVey, who also provides fascinating background information about his life, culture, and the Syriac church which was as significant as the Greek and Latin churches of the time.

He wrote in the Syriac language, which was a cognate of Aramaic, and delighted in the paradoxical imagery that meditation on the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery inspires.

Who then, my Lord, compares to you?
The Watcher slept, the Great was small,
the Pure baptized, the Life who died,
the King abased to honor all:
praised be your glory.

( from the Episcopal hymnbook 1982 )

He was also an extremely biblical writer: his hymns are filled with scriptural references, and he interprets many Old Testament texts, stories, and symbols as prefiguring Christ, including some pretty obscure references I wouldn’t recognize without the helpful footnotes. The man seriously knew his Bible.

One of his prayers is well known in the Orthodox church as, simply, the Lenten Prayer:

O Lord and Master of my life, do not give me the spirit of laziness, meddling, self-importance and idle talk.
Instead, grace me, Your servant, with the spirit of modesty, humility, patience, and love.
Indeed, my Lord and King, grant that I may see my own faults, and not condemn my brothers and sisters, for You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.
(Twelve deep bows, saying each time: O God, be gracious to me, a sinner.)

See also this detailed explication of the prayer (in a translation that names “sloth, faint-heartedness, lust for power, and idle talk” as the four sins in the first line) by Alexander Schmemann — a very fine Lenten meditation.

Ephraim has been called “The greatest poet of the patristic age and, perhaps, the only theologian-poet to rank beside Dante” (Robert Murray). He’s one of the mostly-hidden treasures of the Church.

Vote for Ephraim!

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3 Responses to Lent Madness: Vote for Ephraim!

  1. Theophrastus says:

    Ephram’s poetry is characterized by extraordinary amounts of word-play, making him a master of Syriac. Here is an example from his commentary to the Diatesseron (Tatian’s famous gospel harmony). Notice how modern it seems, with a true love of symmetry. It remeinds of Samuel Beckett’s Watt:

    When he heard the promise of John from the angel,
    but did not believe it, he was silent;
    but when he saw that John had come out of the womb he spoke.
    The word which came out of the angel
    passed by his mouth and closed it,
    and so came to the womb and opened it;
    and the same reversed these operations,
    closing the womb which it had opened,
    that it might not give birth again,
    and opening the mouth which it had closed,
    that it might not be closed again.

    It was right that the mouth should be closed
    for not believing that the barren womb could be opened;
    and it was right that the womb which gave birth to John
    should be closed and not give birth again,
    so that an only-begotten son
    should be the herald of the Only-Begotten Son.

    Moreover, even if Zechariah alone doubted,
    all the same, by doubting,
    he removed all doubt from people’s minds.

  2. Pingback: Ephrem the Syrian: his complex relationship with Judaism « BLT

  3. Thanks for posting this lovely excerpt, Theophrastus. This is the kind of thing that makes the concept of “thought rhyme” make sense to me.

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